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The Benefits of Constraints
We are often frustrated by our constraints, but it turns out that constraints can be really good for us. To begin with, constraints are more effective than discipline because invoking discipline requires willpower that, at any given moment, we may not have. In a situation where discipline is required, a decision is also required because we have to choose between two or more courses of action. Constraints, however, eliminate a multitude of options without our having to do any of the cognitive work or exert our willpower. Given that there are fewer decisions involved when we're constrained, we're less prone to decision fatigue. Counter-intuitively, constraints (along with defaults) also liberate us to do our best because they save our precious time, energy, and attention for focusing on achieving the goal within the confines of the constraints. Being able to take a trip only to a place within three hours of your home can help you narrow your search for places within that radius. Being able to use only certain tools, techniques, or materials can help us channel our creativity. Having only three weeks to finish a project or doing it from the road can make sure that a project stays manageably small, whereas having ample time to spend on the project usually means that we'll overreach on it or put off working on it until the last minute. And, of course, working on it last-minute means that we'll need ample Dunkirk Spirit to get it done, leaving us with a sliding project cascade, in which one project's sliding off the rails causes a cascade of other sliding projects. Serving only one customer profile allows you to focus your resources and strategies on serving that one customer profile, rather than on trying to successfully straddle multiple segments. Many businesses do straddle segments – they're just not being particularly successful in any of them because of how much organizational discipline it takes to stay focused on their goals within multiple segments. Not having a lot of (or any) cash eliminates the paralysis that can occur when too many options are available. We may not like it, but we at least either know what we can do or have to come up with alternative but doable ways to move forward on our projects. Constraints help out in relationships, as well. For instance, committing to sticking with your partner as long as they're faithful to you makes working through the inevitable bumps far easier than waiting to see how things will work out with them. In the latter case, there's a lot of deciding and active willing to preserve the relationship, a situation that may very well be part of the underlying causes of conflict.
Typically, constraints show up in five ways:
No realistic plan
Too few resources
Poor team alignment
In an ideal world, each of the obstacles we face would have one and only one key that solved it. In that same ideal world, we’d only have one obstacle at a time in front of us. In this world, though, we often have multiple dominant obstacles applied to different projects, and we must use multiple keys to work through them. At the same time, you’ll rarely be in a situation where the lack of one key will prevent you from getting some headway when working through a project.
There are five keys to overcoming those constraints and doing your best work:
Intention. Have a clear, ummixed, and as-specific-as-useful goal or destination.
Awareness. Be aware of where you’ll fall down, where you’ll shine, and where you’re likely to bail on the project.
Boundaries. Establish expectations, structures, and space that support your goals. Turn someday, someone into a specific day, person, and time.
Courage. Be courageous enough to commit more fully to fewer projects. We often don’t focus our resources on fewer goals and projects because we’re not sure that we’ll be successful with those projects and thus want to hedge our bets. The result is that we invest too little into projects to make them successful and we’re perennially scattered.
Discipline. Stick with the plan when random and seemingly unlimited distractions inevitably appear.
We often think we're too constrained to be able to start or finish the stuff that matters. It's more likely that it's the opposite: we're not constrained enough to start or finish (only) the stuff that matters. If you want to learn more about how to start finishing, pick up my book of the same name and go from idea to done.